Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George! Harry Kane’s 90th-minute winner in Volgograd was a classic moment of prime summertime Englishness, from Gareth Southgate’s frenzied cavorting in a wedding suit on the touchline, to Croydon Box Park, near the national team’s manager’s old Crystal Palace stomping ground, where 2,000 South London hipsters chucked craft beer in the air to celebrate.
To the pundits on the BBC coverage, beating Tunisia 2-1 was an utter triumph.
Gary Lineker channelled Clare Balding in full “Team GB” cheerleader mode to describe England’s performance as “exceptional” while Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Alan Shearer babbled excitedly alongside him.
There was even candid camera studio footage, as is now probably required by legal statute, of those England legends behaving like fans when Prince Harry struck home, with Lineker’s pelvic thrust and air punch particularly taking the eye.
It is not just the players who experience a collective meltdown when England take to the stage at a major tournament. No wonder the pressure eventually becomes too much. When John Bull’s nation hits tournament mode, critical faculties are discarded, while dissenters are batted down aggressively as positives are taken and cheered to the rafters. Well, until the team lose, that is. The comedown, when it inevitably arrives, is crashing and usually vicious.
Later on Monday night, and perhaps while still in each other’s company, Lineker and Shearer took to social media to sound the clarion call that they, having played the game at this highest level, had declared England’s opener as an unqualified success and so you should too.
Not that there weren’t positives to take. Kane, whose misfires at Euro 2016 were accompanied by a face of misery that resembled Stan Laurel in tears, grasped the nettle. His winning header was a triumph of awareness and neck muscles, his first goal an adept piece of poaching; already he has as many World Cups goals as Shearer and one more than Wayne Rooney.
Marcus Rashford again showed his effectiveness as an impact sub. Jordan Henderson’s constant reprocessing of the ball, which kept coming back from Tunisia’s walled defence, was intelligent and unhurried. Harry Maguire, after a shaky start, brought the ball forward well from defence.
But England’s performance, even during the first 30 minutes of constant attacking football and multiple chance creation which Lineker & co could not stop harking back to, contained so many of the national team’s archetypes. There was some hugely hurried finishing from Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling in particular, and then once Kyle Walker had conceded a penalty for a flailing arm, the doubts set in and not just on the sofas and in the box parks and pubs back home.
For a while, England were rocking on their heels. Without Kane’s winner, Volgograd would have been recalled like Russia in Marseille in 2016, France in Donetsk in 2012 or Team USA in Rustenberg in 2010; a bright start, an early goal and then an equaliser for a disappointing 1-1 start to puncture the hype.
Victory, though, offset universal dissent for a later date. The time when Southgate’s band of brothers, chummy with the media, a nice bunch of lads, have to face failure and the stripping of their reputation that brings, has been postponed.
It may not be long in coming. From the concession of Ferjani Sassi’s 35th minute penalty to the late onslaught that produced the winner, Southgate’s sunshine boys replicated much of what brought down their forebears.
There was panic and confusion as the night’s momentum swung against them, and an opponent that set out to break up England’s play and frustrate were achieving their objectives. Aimless passes, misreading of intentions and overexcitable play at key junctures littered England’s football in that 55 minutes between equaliser and winner.
Sterling, unfortunately, given the fine job that he and the FA have done in showing him to be anything but the pariah certain tabloid publications choose to make him, did not play at all well, a shadow of his Manchester City self. Having backed him to the hilt, and admirably so, Southgate will surely give Sterling another chance, but a repeat against Panama would surely effect a change of who accompanies Kane in attack.
Against an opponent that allows less time on the ball than the Tunisians are prepared to give then any replication of such vulnerabilities is likely to be fatal. Should England reach the knockout round, as is likely, considering Panama are game opponents but lacking in quality, then it will be discovered if Southgate’s holistic approach has managed to cure the national trait of hoofing the ball long in knockout matches against opponents far more adept at retaining possession.
Until those moments arrive, the bandwagon can merrily roll on. There is still a future in England’s dreaming.